As I rise to speak today, back home in my electorate of Indi, at Waminda Community House in Benalla, the weekly food relief session is beginning.
Each week, families drop in to Waminda to pick up fresh fruit and vegetables and other food for their households, a service that helps those who are struggling to make ends meet.
We hear a lot about the rising cost of living in this place, but places like Waminda are where people are really feeling it. Last week I visited Waminda, and manager Leanne Bullard told me that demand for the food relief service is slowly but surely rising.
At Waminda, people take what they need for food relief, and Leanne says both the number of people and the amount of food being collected is increasing as conditions get harder.
I also recently visited Albury Wodonga Regional Foodshare, where the story is similar – the number of people seeking out their services is going up, including people from more backgrounds who are really struggling. I met with Volunteer Coordinator, Sue Thornton, and Chair, Simon Welsh and they told me they were staggered by the change in people seeking help from their service – it’s people who are working, single mums with kids and mortgages, and there just isn’t enough money to pay for the roof over their heads, the bills and food as well.
There are community houses and food shares across my electorate who are all telling the same story – more people are needing help and time and time again they are stepping up to meet that demand. People are heading off to work, contributing to our communities, but there’s no guarantee that will be enough for them.
Albury Wodonga Regional Foodshare says that across their region there are 22,230 people living in poverty. That includes 4,942 children. This is defined by those with a household income of less than $368 per week. It is hard to fathom, but this is the reality.
In their catchment on any given day at least 2,223 people require food assistance.
The Government is indebted to these neighbourhood houses, these foodshares, because they are filling the gap left when policy fails.
The cost of living goes up and up and yet the rate of Job Seeker and other welfare payments barely shifts, and it is charities, neighbourhood houses and others that are stepping into the breach.
This week saw the launch of the Parliamentary Friends of Ending Poverty – and the message from Reverend Tim Costello and economist Chris Richardson was clear – an increase in welfare payments in the May budget is long overdue. Mr Richardson said the single unemployment benefit as a percentage of full time wage earnings has dropped from 24% in 1990 to 18.5% today.
Amongst OECD countries, Australia is only 2nd lowest to Greece of unemployment benefits as a percentage of full time earnings.
A new study released this week from the University of New South Wales and Australian Council of Social Service found 60% of people on the jobseeker payment, 72% of people on the parenting payment, and 34% of people on youth allowance lived in poverty.
We must do better to support the most vulnerable in our society. Neighbourhood houses, charities, foodshares play an important role but we can’t keep expecting more and more of them if the Government won’t also step up.
I want to say thank you to every neighbourhood house, food-share, charity and organisation in Indi that is ensuring people in our communities have fresh fruit and vegetables, that they don’t go hungry, that they have sanitary items, that they have dignity. You are a vital, but often unseen part of our society.
Soon we will see the first report from the new Economic Inclusion Advisory Panel on the adequacy of income support payments. This Panel was set up following a sensible amendment by Senator David Pocock last year and I thank him for that work. I think we know what that panel will say about the rate of JobSeeker and other payments, and I hope the Government will listen.